Accident Database

Report ID# 164

  • Flush Drowning
  • Impact/Trauma
  • Does not Apply
  • Cold Water
  • High Water

Accident Description


Uncompahgre River near Ouray, CO : June 14, 1993

Gradient 100 fpm; Volume High; Classification IV+

SUMMARY: On July 14, 1993 kayaker Gary Stacks was swept under a strainer during a high water run on Colorado's Uncompahgre River. Despite aggressive rescue efforts by his friends he did not survive the swim.

DESCRIPTION: The Uncompahgre River near Ouray, Colorado is a uncomplicated roadside run with a steep gradient, a narrow but unobstructed river bed, and a few strainer hazards. At high water levels like those encountered by the group it becomes extremely fast and pushy. The victim, Gary Stacks, 43, was paddling with a three other experienced kayakers from Tennessee who were touring around the state. Two of the men had paddled the river a few days earlier at a lower level, and the group scouted the run from the road prior to putting in.

One paddler put in at the top of a steep rapid, expecting to join the rest of the group which was waiting below. He got into trouble in some holes, bailed out, and swam to shore. He walked along the road, looking for his boat, as the rest of the group continued downriver. Another boater was uncomfortable with the river and took out 50 yards later; a third person paddled downstream and set up a rope.

Stacks swam out of his boat soon afterwards. He was still conscious and hanging onto his boat as he approached the throw line. A rope was thrown out, but he made no effort to get it. From the road, the paddler who had swum earlier saw Stacks floating, near his boat but motionless, towards a bad strainer on the outside of a bend. Racing down to the strainer, was able to he climb out onto it. After a desperate struggle he pulled Stacks free. The victim was probably pinned under the log for five minutes.

The chase didn't end there. The Stacks washed downstream 30 more yards before a bystander, dressed in T-shirt and shorts, waded knee-deep into the icy water and pulled him to shore. Later measurements on the road using a car odometer estimated the total length of the swim at .9 mile.

Another member of the party who was observing the run through binoculars went to the road and flagged down approaching motorists for help. One of these was occupied by a group similar to Outward Bound. The leaders raced to the recovery point and began CPR at once. Later, EMT's took over and took Stacks to a local hospital where he was pronounced dead.

SOURCE: Bluff City Canoe Club Newsletter ( Tenn. )


1) The group clearly got more than they bargained for on this run. It is not uncommon for Eastern boaters, scouting from the road, to underestimate the size and difficulty of Western rivers.

2) The group believes that Mr. Stacks struck a rock upon capsizing and was stunned. This would explain his inability to grab the line or work aggressively towards shore. They also noted that he sometimes had problems with his contact lenses after taking a lot of water in the face. 

3) Cold water is often underestimated in hot western environments, but is particularly dangerous to people over 40. Stacks was wearing a dry top and polypro on his upper body with shorts and booties below. There was no neoprene for the torso protection he needed while swimming continuous snowmelt-fed rapids. This oversight certainly made the swim more strenuous and undoubtedly contributed to the fatality

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